The Putt-Tones - Still Rockin' After 30 Years

Dan Howe, Kerry Smith, Charlie Eggerding and Biff Birdsall
of the world famous Putt Tones.

When we got wind of the Putt-Tones softball team and their 30 year history, we thought for sure someone was pulling our leg so it was off to Belknap Park to see these guys first hand. Turns out the report was true; three core members of the team have a 30 year history of playing softball together. Right before the 1980 season three brothers hatched the idea of forming a softball team. Art, Charlie, and Tim Eggerding decided the first guy they would recruit would be their buddy down the street, Dan Howe.
Fast forward 29 seasons, (an argument can be made for doubling that number to 58 seasons because they play in both summer and fall leagues), and Dan Howe is still playing softball with Charlie and Tim Eggerding. While these three have the longest tenure, the team has others with equally impressive numbers. Kerry Smith signed on in 1983 as did Ben Tant. Biff Birdsall, the current skipper of the team, joined up in 1990. Oogie Lamar has been a member for 15 years and he has so much fun he recruited his brother Ty eight years ago. (Oogie is the glue of the infield at short; the guy has a great glove.)
We never figured out how many years Pat Burkhalter has been a Putt-Tone, but he convinced his son Adam to start playing three years ago which makes him the “rookie” of the team. Adam was playing center and rest assured the he has an arm on him that won’t quit. Tim Eggerding was working for the GRFD the night we saw the team, but Biff had plenty of others to fill the roster: Mingo Tobar (who almost convinced us he was playing illegally via a raft from Cuba), Denny Middleton, Dan Weber (who rides a sweet ’98 Harley Road King to every game), Brad Frank, Dave Sergeant, and Andy Duch joined in the fun.
FUN is a key word for the Putt-Tones and they make that crystal clear. Their name is a derivative that reflects their history. They were initially sponsored by Bel-Tone Hearing Center from ’84-’92, but since then they have been taken care of by the folks at Putt Putts, a bar on the West Side of Grand Rapids. Out of respect for their first sponsors the name Putt-Tones was chosen. Trying to filter factual information out of the constant flow of good natured banter, softball yarns, and assorted tall tales from this crowd proved to be a bit of a challenge. These guys crack wise like a dugout full of comedians.
That being said, do not be fooled – when the Putt-Tones show up, they are ready to play. They have taken the league championship six out of the last seven seasons. Since Biff took the job of “coaching” the team is 52-10. When you consider the average age of this team is 47 ½ and then watch how they play against a field of mostly younger guys, they are very impressive. What the years might have shaved off in speed and reflexes, the Putt-Tones more than make up for with their heads up play and decades of experience. They take the game seriously even while joking and smiling non-stop. We watched more than one of them digging for an extra base and hustling to make the play. Ben Tant was sitting out with a broken thumb from a line drive he caught earlier in the season. It is noteworthy that he played two more innings AFTER he broke the thumb.
One of the many team mottos is “It’s not about the game, it’s about the gang.” Their main objective is to have a good time while competing at their best. Their approach is so mellow that when a ref made a stinky, stinky call they remained nonplussed and took it all in stride. However polite they are to officials and opponents, they can be kind of hard on each other.
For one example, they fine each other without mercy. These fines are serious money, too – up to .25 cents at a time. Players can be fined for throwing too soft or too hard. Putt-Tones can be fined for lousy hitting or for hitting too well. Dan Howe was once fined for a hitting a triple and “replacing the Kentucky Derby as the most exciting two minutes in sports”.
In addition to jabbing each other with verbal barbs, these guys will happily brag about their own shortcomings. When Oogie was complimented about his work at short, he related how one time he allowed “almost 30 runs” when he was put in to pitch. This prompted Dan Howe to recall a disastrous inning in which he swears he faced the whole line-up five or six times.
Back to the game: The Putt-Tones jumped to an early lead, but their opponents closed the gap to 5-4 after three innings. Thanks to some great work at bat, the Putt-Tones increased the lead to 12-4 by the fifth. Dan Sergeant made a great running catch in the outfield to shut down an offensive push in the sixth. In the last inning, the gap was narrowed to 12-7 with one out and two men on. Ty Lamar ended the contest with a great snag at third that he turned into a double play.
As much as we hate to, sometimes we have to fall back on an overused phrase: “What a great bunch of guys” is how we would characterize the Putt-Tones. They play to win, but they concentrate on having fun.
We have heard rumors that the team is being considered as the next set of poster boys for AARP and that many of the retirement homes in the Grand Rapids area are chasing them down with sponsorship money. In the interest of full disclosure we must confess that those rumors originated in the Putt-Tones dugout and should be considered as slightly less than factual.
Play Ball!
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